Is concern about the diminishing middle class causing us to forget the poor?

Out of sight, out of mind. That’s been a major problem for poor people in the United States. When John F. Kennedy was a candidate for president in 1960, he traveled to West Virginia to see Appalachian poverty (and campaign for votes). He was appalled at the extent of poverty in America even though he had previously read Michael Harrington’s The Other America.

Eight years later, Kennedy’s brother, Robert, had a similar experience when campaigning in Mississippi. Combined with his visits to inner urban neighborhoods in Detroit, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, he made the eradication of poverty one of the key planks of his platform.

As he was doing this, President Lyndon Johnson was fighting his “War on Poverty.” He didn’t have to learn about poverty; he grew up poor in rural Texas. He knew that the New Deal was incomplete and he wanted to provide economic opportunities for all Americans.

The focus of economic dialogue in the U.S. now is economic distribution. As the rich have become richer, the middle class has lagged. On Nov. 1, 2011, the Congressional Budget Office reported that over the past thirty years, the rate at which income grew for the top 1% was nine times that for the middle 60%.

 The CBO released an analysis of America’s distribution of wealth over the last three decades. Their findings were shocking: Among the top 1% of households, income grew by an amazing 275% over the last 30 years. In the same period, the middle 60% of households saw their incomes increase by less than 40%.

This analysis confirms what has been the central component in recent American dialogue about the economy. The middle class is getting hammered economically in relation to the top 1%.. Each political party feels that it has a corner on wisdom as to how to jump-start economic growth for the middle class. This is an area where progressives clearly have the moral and logical high ground because their proposals involve creating new jobs for those out of work and thereby directly increasing the incomes of middle income families.

But what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is that it’s all about the middle class. That’s a legitimate concern, but it says nothing about America’s poor. The poor are not only out of the sightlines of many Americans, they are invisible in most of our political dialogue.

One of the more appalling facts is that in his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama used neither the word “poor” nor “poverty.” You may not find that omission significant until you recognize that President Obama was the first president to not use either of these words in a State of the Union Address since Harry Truman, in 1948. Since 1948, every president, including Republican stalwarts like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have all made commitments, or at least offered platitudes towards concerns for the poor. President Obama, who cut his professional teeth as a community organizer on Chicago’s south side serving the needs of the community’s poor, felt that it was more important to address the needs of the satisfied wealthy and the struggling middle class. It’s as if the poor didn’t exist.

He wasn’t the only leader in Washington to do so. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked if class warfare was brewing between the rich and the poor. She said that wasn’t her main concern; her priority was the well-being of middle-income families.

The bottom line is that it’s one of the worst periods in modern American history for an individual or family to be poor.

On November 3, 2011, the Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times reported:

The number of people living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty grew by a third over the past decade, according to a new report, erasing most of the gains from the 1990s when concentrated poverty declined.

More than 10 percent of America’s poor now live in such neighborhoods, up from 9.1 percent in the beginning of the decade, an addition of more than two million people, according to the report by the Brookings Institution, an independent research group.

That evening, the CBS Evening News lead with a story that one in fifteen American now rank as the poorest poor, meaning that they live on incomes half that of the official poverty level.

It may be that the Occupy movement will have to make a distinction within the 99%. After all, that 99% includes all the very wealthy people in the U.S. besides the top 1%. It would undermine the simplicity and clarity of the argument if the 99% were excessively sliced and diced. However, at the risk of sounding too much like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 proposal, we might look for a new moniker that recognizes that poverty is omnipresent in our society, and that the increasing burdens of the middle class should not overshadow the presence of the poor.

All of this lends itself well to “what-if” games. What if Lyndon Johnson had chosen to not mire America in the Vietnam War? Is it possible that his War on Poverty could have been a success?

What if President George W. Bush had focused on quick and effective action in Afghanistan and not engaged in his quixotic adventure in Iraq? Would the American economy be stronger, providing more jobs for middle and low income families?

What if President Barack Obama had gotten out of Iraq in one year rather than three, and his surge in Afghanistan had been to get out rather than to increase American military presence? Would he have been in a better position to protect middle- and low- income people by fashioning structural changes on Wall Street rather than band-aids?

Some Americans have the luxury of playing these games. Others are mired in poverty or struggling on the low end of the middle class. Their focus is on survival today rather than hypotheticals from the past or into the future.

What is important is that we recognize that the level of poverty in the United States is unacceptable and easily could have been preventable. It’s also correctable. As we work to strengthen the position of the middle class, let us not forget those who suffer the most, the poor.